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What Happened, Miss Simone? [Movie Review]

What Happened, Miss Simone? is an award-winning Netflix documentary about the life and career of Nina Simone. Clips of Nina Simone sharing her thoughts in her own words added a layer of depth that was very engaging. Listening to Simone recount the events of her life made it easy to empathize with the emotions of those moments. The film lacked the dramatics of a biopic but still felt personal and made me think about Simone long after viewing.

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I knew a few of Nina Simone’s songs before seeing What Happened, Miss Simone? but didn’t know much about her or her career. The documentary offered an engaging look into the life of a talented but unhappy individual. It was a study in a person overflowing with artistic genius straining against feeling unfulfilled. It’s unfortunate that Simone gave so much of herself but seemed to enjoy very little of her life.

Nina Simone’s long struggle with depression influenced her feelings of dissatisfaction. Yet, it seemed that regardless of Simone’s good intentions, things tended to not go her way. Her life ebbed and flowed between the heights of success and deep levels of despair.

Discrimination as an eager and talented music student gave way to early renown as a classic pianist. Her marriage resulted in enduring psychological and physical domestic violence. Simone put her life and career at risk and was initially celebrated for becoming involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She was later ostracized by the music industry and abandoned by fans only to later re-emerge as a cultural icon.

Nina Simone didn’t regret her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement but thought she might have been happier as a classical pianist. It’s interesting that she achieved a great deal of success with commercial music but it left her wanting something deeper. She found personal fulfillment expressing herself through revolutionary music. Yet, it had a negative impact on both her and her career which left her feeling empty in the end.

Simone’s comeback in the 80’s and activity later in life was a welcome turn of events. I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if she was able to get help earlier in life. Nina Simone faced a series of obstacles but emotional and mental health care could have decreased her feelings of emptiness. I couldn’t imagine struggling with mental illness for much of my life and only finding some degree of relief towards the end.

Musicians and artists give a lot of themselves when using their art as an outlet. Others enjoy the fruits of their labors but it’s draining for the artist if they don’t practice self-care. The stress of being sensitive, emotional, and overworked seems to lead to burnout and bouts of depression.

Recommendation

Nina Simone lived a life of taking the bitter with the sweet. She had quite a bit of the former but not enough of the latter. Despite Nina Simone’s success, What Happened, Miss Simone? left me feeling sad but the documentary also motivated me to learn more about Nina Simone.

I recommend the documentary as an introduction to the life and music of Nina Simone. There might not be a lot of new info for people who are already fans. But, it might still be worth checking out just to hear Simone speak about herself and her career in her own words.

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